Displacement and Dislocation in Columbus, Driveways and Minari

by George Kowalik Volume 28, Issue 5 / May 2024 14 minutes (3273 words)

Minari (photo source, A24)

The South Korean-born American filmmaker known only as Kogonada is a rare breed: he seldom makes public appearances and his identity is almost unknown despite the success of his debut film Columbus (2017). His chosen moniker is a nod to Yasujirō Ozu's frequent screenwriter, but his real name is unknown. His exact age and origins are unknown, but in the years leading up to the release of Columbus he cultivated a reputation as a video essayist for film companies as big as the British Film Institute and the Criterion Collection. Considering this elected reclusive lifestyle, it is perhaps fitting that the film Kogonada became known for begins with an architecture professor’s assistant searching for their employer, calling out his name and trying to find him simultaneous to the spectator’s introduction to finding out about this professor, who we learn is in town to give a high-profile lecture.

This sense of displacement pervades Columbus and as immediately defines its other characters. Take Jin (played by John Cho), who arrives in Columbus soon after this opening scene, at which point the professor (his father) is in hospital in a coma. Jin works in South Korea translating literature to English, so has made a career of bridging the gap between different countries and cultures. While visiting, he strikes up a friendship with recent high school graduate and young architecture enthusiast Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who is also unsure of her place in the world and which geographical direction to let life take her in. We meet Casey in similar fashion to the introduction to Jin’s father: she is in motion, present (unlike the professor) but unable to stand still, locked in the stage before complete dislocation (the professor’s). Casey paces while on her smoke break from the library job she works while caring for her mother, a recovering drug addict. She paces, memorising architecture notes – as we learn later, she was planning to attend the lecture Jin’s father is in town for.

Casey finishes her cigarette and goes back inside, where we observe her absence in conversations, likely a result of being in a job she does not enjoy. Rory Culkin’s Gabriel, a doctoral student who works at the library, keeps trying to land a date with her and she politely shrugs his efforts off, preoccupied with the paradox of having abstract, indeterminate plans to leave Columbus to design buildings and very concrete responsibilities like ensuring that her mother does not relapse. Casey is the antithesis of Jin, whom she soon meets and becomes close to on walks and during visits to local architectural landmarks in the days he spends in Columbus. She embodies the opposite of something Jin tells her when they meet, which he ostensibly lives by: “Family’s the most important thing but really work’s the most important thing.” The sad realisation defines Jin’s own displacement, which again inverts Casey’s dilemma of being physically present but absent in her head. Conversely, Jin is here in Columbus with his father – away from his home, Seoul – but is unsure that he should be due to how tenuous his relationship with his father is.

Yet Seoul does not necessarily symbolise home to Jin either – as he hardly waxes lyrical to Casey, “It’s alright.” Jin would perhaps warm to the idea of America being a possible home if it was not for the reason for this current visit: to see a father he resents for caring more about his work than his son when he was growing up. So much of Jin’s identity is American, which he defends the first time he meets Casey, challenging her when she begins a conversation and is surprised that she gets a response in English: “You don’t think Asians can speak English?” Casey is the opposite of her new friend, being rooted in a fixed geographical space but certain that she does not feel at home in it. Early in the film while on shift at the library, she bumps into an old high school classmate that her body language clearly communicates she did not like and does not care about now. This girl asks Casey “when are you leaving?”; Casey does not really have an answer and would never say it but knows that the girl’s question is the right one to ask herself. Later, Casey is equally equivocal rather than open and honest with Jin, who asks her if she likes it here, to which she replies, “Not sure yet.” Her priority is family because she has seen what happens to her mother when she relapses. Duty is what provokes stasis for Jin too, who asks his father’s assistant Eleanor (Parker Posey) about whether just waiting around for his father to die is the right thing to do, about whether doing this will actually achieve anything. The film approaches its end with Jin remaining static, but it takes on a new meaning at this stage: the film’s first shot of him and his father in the same room, which Kogonada finally gives us nine minutes from the end. Casey, meanwhile, believing her mother to have relapsed again, finally decides that she cannot take it anymore and promises Jin that she is to leave and follow her dream by studying architecture at college.

For its thematic interest in displacement and dislocation, Columbus can be compared to Driveways (2019), despite the lack of convenient parallels between fact and fiction and between film and filmmaker with Andrew Ahn’s film. The comparison can be made partly because of but should not be reduced to the fact that Driveways is equally anchored by the Korean American experience. There are also key differences between these two films: Columbus’ emphasis on architecture and its centralisation of young adults is replaced by Driveways’ relationship between an elderly white American war veteran and a young Asian American boy in upstate New York. Furthermore, death in Driveways is something that has happened rather than something that is being anticipated. The boy’s mother – Kathy (Hong Chau) – is grieving the death of her sister, whose empty but full house they are in town to pack up and sell.

Unlike Jin’s arrival in Columbus, as spectators we do witness the journey taken by Kathy and son Cody (Lucas Jaye) to arrive in New York. The film opens with loud piano notes from Jay Wadley’s score, accompanying Kathy and Cody’s car journey, which they do not talk during and which is only interrupted by a short stop at a gas station (where Kathy tosses a cigarette and Cody stubs it out once she has got back in the car, before himself getting back in the car). The music fills this gap but says more about the absence of diegetic dialogue than it does about its own non-diegesis, just as the nature of this silent car journey offers more substantial indications of the atmosphere of mother and son’s arrival at their destination, which we understand as soon as the film discloses the reason of Kathy’s sister’s death. Like Columbus, Driveways foregrounds a geographical switch from home to somewhere new, again justifying this movement with severed family connections, but in the case of Kathy and her sister the connection is irreparable, and the displacement is a practical necessity rather than one with the potential of reconnecting.

As with Kogonada’s film, the arrival in Ahn’s is amplified by the reception. As Kathy and Cody pull up at the house and begin to move their sister/aunt’s things out over the first few days of staying there, we voyeuristically watch their neighbour watching them: an elderly white war veteran, peeking from behind the safety of his curtain. When we first see Del (Brian Dennehy) do this, the film then cuts to him eating alone, then to him watching TV alone. As Driveways settles into its first act, we learn that the peeking was borne out of the opposite of hostility: an unfavourable possibility that evaporates before it even begins to fully form. Del gets to know both Kathy and Cody, his meeting with the latter occurring when he tells the boy which way to turn the tap for the garden hose after seeing him struggling alone. The network of familial relationships and friendships in this film, as in Columbus, is defined by this impulsive generosity, this desire to look out for another. Likely used to less amicable, unwanted, or even malicious treatment from the stereotype Del represents – the lonely white war veteran who sits outside his front door and watches the world go by – Kathy’s initial response is to distrust Del’s friendliness, even suggesting that Del sprayed her son with water when he was the one who helped him after this happened during his independent struggle. Her son tells her about the “army guy” and “old man on the porch” that keeps saying hello to him; she lectures him and then Del about how her son has been raised to not speak to strangers.

Kathy’s defence mechanism is justified by the scene where another neighbour introduces herself and digs herself into a conversational hole culminating with the line “I’m not being racist or anything.” This female neighbour says how it will be nice to have more children around the neighbourhood as she has two herself, but even if well intentioned is being racist, comparing the arrival of Kathy and Cody to “the Mexicans” who used to live close by, who she complains kept having more children. Cody goes for sleepovers with this woman’s sons, but does not fit in with them, opting to put effort into his friendship with Del instead. Kathy quickly learns that there is no deception nor ulterior motive to Del’s kindness, so she warms to him as much as Cody does, at one point them all (including Del’s veteran friends) spending Cody’s birthday together playing bingo. Cody does to the extent that he asks his mother if they can stay at his aunt’s house permanently, to which she replies that they cannot afford to, so they must move on as soon as the property is sold. It is precisely this transformation from stranger to friend – Del to Kathy and Cody; Casey to Jin – that gradually diminishes the sense of dislocation set up by Driveways and Columbus as they both progress. Such dislocation is an extension of the characters’ collective displacement, the severity of which varies depends on the extent to the geographical shift. Jin’s involves a move from South Korea to America, whereas Kathy and Cody’s concerns a move across America, but as we learn from Kathy’s late night phone conversations to Cody’s absent father (who we are led to assume she has separated from), which are in Korean, their move is only the latest in a series of adaptations from a Korean life to an assimilated American one.

Another productive film to compare to Columbus is Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020), which uses its director’s personal history to cast back to a 1980s rural Arkansas setting. Here, we meet a Korean family whose parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) are experiencing marital struggles, whose son David (Alan Kim) is still young enough to be wetting the bed and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) is old enough to watch out for her little brother, and whose grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives in town to help watch the children while the parents work sexing chicks at a nearby hatchery in order to put food on the table. Most importantly, the Yi family has moved from California to this new plot of land in Arkansas because Jacob hopes to grow Korean produce to sell to vendors in Dallas. He enlists the help of Paul (Will Patton), an eccentric local man and Korean War veteran who, like in Driveways, symbolises the kind of possible tension that never materialises that defines the characterisation of Ahn’s Del. Like in that film but also Columbus, Minari is principally interested in staging the act of displacement that comes with process of immigration, particularly when the destination of that process is a country as overwhelming and difficult to navigate and often unwelcome as the USA.

This does not mean the Yi family are not hopeful and full of ambition for their personalised American Dream. After a very similar opening to Driveways in which we witness a silent car journey set to piano music – this time, a car following behind a rental truck – David and Anne are explained to by their parents that the new land and home they are stood in front of “is the best dirt in America”, that “Daddy’s going to make a big garden.” Comparing the new land to their old is a source of the optimism, too. Jacob asks his son “How was our old land in California?”, to which David replies “We had nothing”, and Jacob “That’s right.” Jacob’s self-proclaimed “dream” is to have fifty acres, and his drive and determination are, as he teaches his son, specifically Korean American traits. Their hybrid national identity is what gives Jacob such hope for his family – as he tells Jacob, “Korean people us their heads… we use our minds.” Jacob even delivers this life lesson in two languages, separated by the ellipsis, highlighting both a distinction between his family and Koreans and between his family and Americans.

The Yi family are uniquely themselves, unrestricted when it comes to self-definitions and identity labels. Narrative obstacles threaten to challenge this, but ultimately all fall away and amount to nothing – such as the early suggestions that Jacob and Monica should find a Korean babysitter (before they arrange grandma’s stay); their excited realisation that “there are Koreans here” on their first day at work together (before understanding that they are safe to socialise with Americans and Koreans, rather than one or the other); or when they chat with colleagues they know better a bit later in the film about the idea of setting up a Korean church in Arkansas (which they do not do, settling in at one full of white Americans instead, despite the initial looks they get, the introductory microaggressions they are each subjected to during small talk after their first attended service). Jacob and Monica’s parental duties are to make their children understand that they should not be defined by nor reduced to the fact of their immigration – hence, for example, David getting in trouble when he complains that “Grandma smells like Korea” on her first day at their new home. As his sister reminds him, he has never even been to Korea. As parents, Jacob and Monica ensure that David and Anne know their heritage – exemplified by the scene in which Monica explains why they do not have any aunts and uncles (the Korean War) – but they raise them on the philosophy that they should not be limited to nor impeded by their background. As such, Minari is less about the feeling of dislocation as it is about the empowerment that can come with displacement, somewhat separating it from Columbus and Driveways.

But that is not to say Chung’s film is about ease or a lack of complexity. Rather, Minari establishes this equilibrium of contentment with being Korean American in order to test its durability given the unfair treatment the identity brings them. The Yi family problems list is as follows: David’s bedwetting troubles escalate to something potentially serious, needing hospital check-ups that ultimately only prove to have been a precaution; grandma’s forgetfulness and declining mental focus, which is initially innocuous and funny (her obsession with the idea of planting minari seeds she has brought from Korea) but quickly turns worrying (she too begins to wet the bed, and generally become increasingly confused about who and where she is the longer she stays in Arkansas); and the precarity of Jacob and Monica’s marriage. The film begins with this precarity, which only unravels further as the film goes on. During a particularly heated argument after a panic as a tornado hits the home, their children make and throw paper airplanes at their parents that have “Don’t fight” scrawled on them in crayon. The props do not diffuse the situation immediately, Monica getting her last blows in, warning Jacob that “If this is the [new] “start” you wanted, maybe there’s no chance for us.” Later in the film, at boiling point as Jacob’s dream has been replaced with a constantly difficult, struggling reality, he desperately reminds his wife why they need to stay together: “Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d go to America and save each other.” But as she returns, “You chose the farm over the family”, implying that to carry on like this might see the kind of fractured adult relationship shared by Columbus’ Jin and his father. It takes the family home burning down to save the marriage and make the Yi family realise that all they have is each other, complete with their flaws and struggles and the inevitable obstacles ahead of their continued effort to assimilate into American culture. In a rare moment of tranquillity in the often fraught, emotional Minari, after this fire David takes his father to the spot that he and his grandmother have been returning to all film. Together, father and son begin to pick the harvested minari as Chung’s film fades to black and the credits begin to roll.

At the heart of a comparison between Columbus, Driveways, and Minari – and there is heart, as each of these three films are real and moving, are anchored by humanism and sensitivity – is a collective thematic interest in the difference between displacement and dislocation. The former process and the latter, consequent feeling are attendant to the demands of assimilation that come after successful immigration. Kogonada, Andrew Ahn, and Lee Isaac Chung’s films could be categorised as bilingual due to their split use of the Korean and English languages and inconsistent use of subtitles, but to categorise them as such would almost be missing the point. These films centralise the need not to categorise, to classify, to define, to label. They each give voices to characters that are underrepresented in contemporary cinema but only because they are borne out of their directors’ authentic, sincere desires to write about what they know – that is, their own Korean American identities. But they are each about something universal, in the end: the struggle to overcome loss (whether it is in the past, future, or conditional tense), the desire to keep a family together, and the portability of the designation “home.”

Displacement and Dislocation in Columbus, Driveways and Minari

George Kowalik has a PhD on contemporary fiction from King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer, and was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at the link above.

Volume 28, Issue 5 / May 2024 Essays   andrew ahn   immigration   kogonada   korean   lee isaac chung   steve yeun